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The Mother of Feminism: Gloria Steinem

Updated on July 20, 2017

Gloria Steinem

By Warren K. Leffler [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By Warren K. Leffler [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Equality For All

**Another note to readers: Again, there is some discussion of abortion in this particular article, and I would kindly ask that my readers not turn this into a pro- or anti-abortion debate, only because if you do then you miss the overall importance of the blog and I really don’t want to see my hard work wasted. If you feel this is too sensitive an issue in either respect, please don’t read.

Women had won the right to vote in 1920 … and very little had happened to improve the lives and statuses of women since then. Women still struggled to attend school, still struggled to find meaningful work, were paid considerably less, denied the same opportunities that their husbands and male relatives could easily get, did not receive adequate medical care when required, were generally despised by the male working class and were sexually harassed and abused all too frequently without ever getting the legal help they needed.

Gloria Steinem was born in Toledo, Ohio on March 25, 1934, a full fourteen years after the ratification of the 19th Amendment, and aside from that, nothing had changed. Gloria was too young to really understand that at the time, especially since things just seemed absolutely wonderful in her life. Her father was a traveling antiques dealer, and Gloria and her mother regularly accompanied him on long journeys across the United States, though it often cut into Gloria’s education. But it didn’t matter to her. All was right with young Gloria’s world …

Until suddenly, it wasn’t. One day when Gloria was three, her mother Ruth had what Gloria described as a nervous breakdown, suffering from an undiagnosed mental illness that gave her severe and violent delusions. Ruth was admitted to a psychiatric ward on several occasions where her illness was inadequately treated (unsurprising, really, as most psychiatric wards at the time were more like torture chambers and patients were abused and neglected as often as they were treated). The stress of Ruth’s illness became too much for Gloria’s father Leo and in 1944 her parents divorced. Gloria never blamed her father for wanting to leave, but she resented how he did very little to help her or her mother—who even when stable had trouble finding a job because she was a woman—and as she would spend freezing nights with her mother in their dilapidated house, eleven year old Gloria had a revelation, something that would change her life and the lives of millions of women forever.

She realized that women were not equal to men … and it was wrong.

After completing high school, Gloria attended Smith College, an all-women’s college in Northampton, MA, graduating at the top of her class, then spent two years in India as a Chester Bowes Asian Fellow. Upon returning to the United States, Gloria became director of the Independent Research Service (which was being funded by none other than the CIA), working to send non-Communist students to the 1959 World Youth Festival. In 1960, she was hired by Help! magazine, but noticed that she was given journalism assignments that were less impressive than the ones her male co-workers were getting, and she was being paid even less for the same type of work that they were doing. She stuck it out for a little while, but it wasn’t until she was writing as a freelance journalist for Esquire magazine did she find her true calling.

In 1962, Gloria was hired by Esquire to write an article regarding birth control, and, after a rewrite, Gloria presented an article about how women are too often forced to choose between a career and family, preempting Betty Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique by a year. With the success of the Esquire article, Gloria began to delve deeper into the problems and inequalities facing all women—among those being sexual discrimination and harassment. Later remarking that, “A woman reading a Playboy feels a little like a Jew reading a Nazi manual,” Gloria went undercover as a Playboy Bunny in 1963 for Show magazine. She exposed the way the women working at the clubs were badly mistreated (and still are), and while she brought the disgusting behaviors to light, something unexpected happened: Gloria had difficulty getting any more jobs. Why? Because she had worked as a Playboy Bunny, and all of her would-be employers refused to hire her because they considered her to be unsavory (still happens today, despite the fact that women are now “encouraged” to embrace and use their sexuality—when is the hypocrisy going to end?). As Gloria said, “(B)ecause I had now become a Bunny—and it didn’t matter why.”

Over time Gloria was able to get a few articles and interviews, but her career as a feminist began in 1969 when she was covering a pro-abortion rally for New York Magazine. Having had an abortion at the age of 22, Gloria always resented how people would try to make her feel badly about what she had done, even though she always felt that it was her right and her right alone to decide what to do with her body—and that applied to women everywhere. This bashing of women over their reproductive rights was the last straw for Gloria, and she later said, “"In later years, if I’m remembered at all it will be for inventing a phrase like 'reproductive freedom' . . . as a phrase it includes the freedom to have children or not to. So it makes it possible for us to make a coalition.”

And she did; in 1972, Gloria co-founded the feminist journal Ms. Magazine. When the first issue came out in July, 1972, 300,000 copies sold out in three days and generated 26,000 subscriptions. Gloria wrote for Ms. until it sold in 1987. It was sold again in 2001 to the Feminist Majority Foundation, and Gloria still serves as an editor and works on the advisory board.

While working for Ms., Gloria campaigned tirelessly for the Equal Rights Amendment, which would guarantee that women would have equal opportunities and receive equal pay as men do. She also founded a number of feminist groups, including Women’s Action Alliance (promoting non-sexist education for children), the Coalition of Labor Union Women, and the Ms. Foundation for Women. She promoted other feminist leaders as well, such as lawyer Flo Kennedy, child-welfare advocate Dorothy Hughes, and Margaret Sloan-Hunter, founder of the National Black Feminist Organization, though she sometimes clashed with older feminist Betty Friedan and took a stand against the younger, more militant feminists as well.

In 1970, Women’s Liberation was well underway, with Gloria helping to lead the charge. Gloria led the New York City of the nation-wide Women Strike for Equality Movement, and on July 10, 1971 Gloria, Betty Friedan and several dozen other prominent feminists founded the National Women’s Political Caucus. At the caucus, Gloria gave her speech, “Address to the Women of America,” she explained what the goal of feminism ultimately was, saying, “This is no simple reform. It really is a revolution. Sex and race because they are easy and visible differences have been the primary ways of organizing human beings into superior and inferior groups and into the cheap labor on which this system still depends. We are talking about a society in which there will be no roles other than those chosen or those earned. We are really talking about humanism.”

Even as Gloria continued to work to promote feminism and a more egalitarian society, she still remained a diligent fighter for equal rights everywhere, working beside Martine Luther King Jr.’s widow Coretta Scott King and Latino American rights activist Cesar Chavez, boycotting the Vietnam War by refusing to pay taxes, and was arrested along with several members of Congress in 1984 when she protested at the South African embassy for their government’s treatment of the native African people. She supports gay rights and animal rights, and has campaigned against female genital mutilation (FGM) and human trafficking. She is fiercely opposed to pornography, citing its all too frequent themes or depiction of a man dominating a woman, and instead promotes erotica, which offers a more equal and less violent representation of sex, saying, “Erotica is as different from pornography as love is from rape, as dignity is from humiliation, as partnership is from slavery, as pleasure is from pain.”

In the nineties Gloria founded Take Your Daughter to Work Day, encouraging parents to take their daughters to their jobs so that girls could see firsthand that there was a greater array of occupations out the beyond the more traditional “feminine” ones (i.e. kindergarten teacher, nurse—not that there’s anything wrong with those either!)

With all of those accomplishments, Gloria became a political and journalistic celebrity in the United States, racking up a number of journalism rewards, among them the Lifetime Achievement award for journalists, an Emmy citation for her work on documentaries, and the Society of Writers Award from the United Nations. Still, she never let fame go to her head, and when she noticed that in 2000 Time magazine incorrectly attributed the quote, “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle,” to her, Gloria promptly wrote to the them and ask that they attribute the quote to her friend Irina Dunn; Gloria might have made the quote famous, but she wanted the credit to go where it was deserved.

Gloria never seemed to have much need to for marriage, telling People magazine in an interview, “In the 1950s, once you married you became what your husband was, so it seemed like the last choice you'd ever have … I’d already been the very small parent of a very big child—my mother. I didn't want to end up taking care of someone else.” So with that being said, the entire world was understandably shocked when Gloria finally decided to get married after all. At the age of 66, Gloria married David Bale, the father of actor Christian Bale (yup, Batman) on September 3, 2000, with her good friend and first female chief of the Cherokee Nation Wilma Mankiller presiding. Sadly, the marriage lasted only three years before David passed away due to brain cancer on December 26, 2003.

As painful as David’s death was, Gloria eventually returned to her work, and in 2012 she was named Humanist of the Year by the American Humanist Association for her work with both feminism and LGBT rights. In 2013, Steinem participated in “Chime for Change,” a Gucci-founded concert in London and part of a world-wide campaign to empower girls and women, and she also was interviewed for the documentary on feminism Makers: Women Who Make America. To cap it all off that year, Gloria was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her work bringing equal rights to every in America.

As of this blog today, Gloria Steinem is now 80 years old and going strong, and we can see the changes she helped bring to our society through her efforts. As we enter into yet another wave of feminism (now featuring young women fighting harder to get into occupations such as computers, fighting against sexual harassment in everything from the workplace to images seen in the media, women in the military, stronger female characters in entertainment, more) there is still so much work left to be done. The Equal Rights Amendment has not been ratified. The media is pressuring younger and younger girls to be skinny and sexual before they’re old enough, women are still not paid equally to men, there is still massive sexual discrimination everywhere, and the rape culture is still sadly, sickeningly prevalent. With so much work left to be done, will Gloria—without whom we might not have ever gotten this far—

ever retire?

Hearing that question posed to her at the Women’s Media Awards, Gloria responded, “What would I retire from? Life? I love this, I love what I do.”

Thank God for that.

Gloria Stein works referenced:

Gloria Steinem

Gloria Steinem

Gloria Steinem

Gloria Steinem, 2008


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    • limpet profile image

      Ian Stuart Robertson 

      2 years ago from London England

      I've concluded that Hypatia (370 AD - 415 AD) to be the most remarkable woman in history or at least our history that is. As there is no evidence of her challenging the 'status quo' at the time she did however cause consternation to the academia of her day.

      Hypatia was first and foremost a mathematician and was also involved in astronomy and philosophy as well. It is unknown if Hypatia ever married and had children but Hypatia's name must go down as a paragon of the women's cause.

    • limpet profile image

      Ian Stuart Robertson 

      2 years ago from London England

      Only this week did we get the publicity of Gloria Steinhem's new semi documentary/ film 'Woman'. The program looks at a number of aspects focusing on discrimination against women in different parts of the world. She highlights the fact that the male female ratio is now at a surplus male population. Perhaps it's time to build more prisons.

    • limpet profile image

      Ian Stuart Robertson 

      2 years ago from London England

      I heard Ms Steinem is /was now living in a posh part of North London.Primrose Hill no less !

    • limpet profile image

      Ian Stuart Robertson 

      2 years ago from London England

      I recall the advent of the Women's Liberation movement gaining prominence in late 60's /early 70's but was slow in getting the up to date goings on. We were aware that independent minded women now wished to be called Ms but did not know how to pronounce the word correctly. Another word introduced in these times was 'chauvinist' which was already a little used term however this now had a different and rather derogatory meaning. Then came second wave Feminism and with it the media chiefs selecting assertive and questioning news presenters and journalist to change the thinking of society in that women could not be put down and stereotyped.

    • limpet profile image

      Ian Stuart Robertson 

      4 years ago from London England

      Women in Australia have been able to vote in elections since as early as 1895. In fact when the founders of the Suffragist movement Emily and Sylvia Pankhurst arrived there to promote the Women's cause they were mildly surprised.

    • Eiddwen profile image


      4 years ago from Wales

      So very interesting and voted up. Wishing you a wonderful day.



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